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How can I find a financial planner?

October 9, 2012: 6:30 AM ET

I'm a single mom on a fixed income of $39,000 a year before taxes. I'm interested in finding a financial planner. What steps should I take? — Toya B.

You don't need to be wealthy to hire a financial planner, and many advisers can help get you on track without it costing an arm and a leg.

Robert Schmansky of Clear Financial Advisors in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., suggests starting your search by looking for an adviser who works with people in your income bracket and whose expertise matches up with the financial issues you want to address. That could mean locating a planner who focuses on a broad range of planning issues, or it could involve talking to a specialist about a specific financial goal, such as retirement or saving for a child's college education. You'll want an adviser who can do more than pick investments for you; one sign of that is that he or she has a Certified Financial Planner designation.

In your search, it's also helpful to understand how advisers get paid. Some work on commission, meaning they are compensated when they sell you certain investments or financial products such as annuities. Advisers at brokerage houses, insurance companies, bank branches and large financial firms often are commission-based. Other advisers — some, but not all independent advisers — work on a fee-only basis, meaning you pay them a direct fee (perhaps on an hourly basis, or perhaps a flat fee) but they receive no compensation from other sources. That means they receive neither sales commissions nor annual payments from any funds you might be invested in. Still others, who may call themselves "fee-based," work on a combination of money they receive from you and companies associated with your investments. Whoever you work with should clearly explain to you how he or she is being compensated.

One place to start your search: The web site of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org), which  lets you search for nearby advisers. You can filter the results based on advisers' area of expertise; though not all of them work with clients in your income range, you can search for advisers who work with "middle-income" clients — industry terminology for people in your situation. The Garrett Planning Network (http://garrettplanningnetwork.com/) is another good place to look for advisers who work with a range of clients on a fee-only, hourly basis.

Schmansky suggests that you plan a budget for what you are looking to pay for services. "When you know what you can pay," he says, "you can sit down with an adviser, make a game plan and tackle the most critical issues."

— Austin Kilham

Got a question for the Help Desk? Send it to helpdesk@cnnmoney.com.

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